Update: The House on Friday passed the Waxman-Markey bill, 219 to 212. The story below was written ahead of that vote, but its focus on how environmental groups hope to improve the bill in the Senate remains timely.

Environmental groups are downplaying hopes that their allies in Congress will be able to strengthen the American Clean Energy and Security Act once the House begins debate on the bill later this week, though some officials from climate action groups remain optimistic that the bill can be strengthened later in the legislative process.

Henry WaxmanHenry Waxman at a June 24 rally in support of the far-reaching energy and climate bill he coauthored.Kate Sheppard / GristThe key concern for the environmental community is the deal worked out this week between the bill’s authors, Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who had threatened to torpedo the bill if his demands on a range of farm-state issues weren’t met.

Even though concessions made to Peterson drew fire from many green groups, the precarious nature of the Waxman-Markey compromise has most environmental groups wary of trying to overhaul the bill during the House debate.

“It doesn’t feel likely that there will be opportunities to offer amendments on the floor that are going to be the big fixes,” said Navin Nayak, director of the Global Warming Project at the League of Conservation Voters. “At this point, it’s more about meeting the deadline that they’ve set for the end of this week.”

Most of the big environmental organizations, including the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, and Environmental Defense Fund, are holding to the “strengthen and pass” motto.

Climate CitizensTrack the debate and more >>>Sierra Club Energy and Global Warming Program Director David Hamilton told Grist he thinks that the bill will be amended to encourage more government purchasing of renewable energy. Hamilton said Waxman and Markey asked for suggestions on how to improve it without threatening the fragile compromise with Peterson. “They said give us things that won’t screw up the deal, but be creative about where you get them,” he said.

What can be done?

The biggest flaws environmental organizations have identified in Waxman-Markey include the removal of the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas regulations under the Clean Air Act, the grandfathering of old coal-fired power plants in the initial years of the cap-and-trade program, and the delay in considering the climate impacts of indirect land use in biofuel production, among others.

Sierra Club’s Hamilton, like many others in the environmental community, said he is not expecting there to be too much room for improvement in this week’s debate. Amendments can be submitted up until 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, but the Rules Committee — consulting closely with House leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Waxman, and Markey — gets to decide which amendments get a vote. Due to the tenuous nature of the deal Democrats have forged, it’s unlikely that the Democratic leadership would permit amendments that could jeopardize the deal. They will likely, however, permit minor strengthening amendments to please more progressive members and to prevent floor debate from being limited to only Republican amendments.

“I think there is minimal opportunity for strengthening on the House floor,” said Hamilton.

LCV’s Nayak said the Democrats’ tight hold on how the House debate will unfold means there will be few opportunities for opponents to weaken the legislation. “A lot of the deals that have been cut have chipped away at it already,” said Nayak. “So I think there’s hope that some of the big weakening issues … will be avoided.”

Both Nayak and Hamilton stressed the importance that passing Waxman-Markey this week will play in creating additional opportunities for improvement. “We believe if we’re going to have a chance to strengthen the bill, you’ve got to get it through the House,” said Hamilton.

Hamilton said his group is already in discussions with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, under the leadership of Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “We’re trying to figure out what are the most strategic ways to plug what we see as holes in this thing without completely scotching the deal that Waxman came up with,” said Hamilton.

Boxer has said that her committee will produce a climate bill by the end of August that would serve as the Senate counterpart to Waxman-Markey. “My sense is that they will use the Waxman bill as a guide, but they will not be averse to making some strategic changes where they think they are useful,” said Hamilton of his conversations with Boxer’s committee.

Dan Lashof, director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, echoed similar optimism about the Senate’s likely approach. “The dynamic there is a little different. because the committee is very friendly to this,” he said, comparing it to the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee, which includes more lawmakers from rural and energy-producing districts. “We can fix some problems in the House bill in committee.”

The chief threat to Boxer’s approach comes from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which last week approved a bill that had environmental groups cringing.

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